Illusion of control

"It is not luck, I did it."

Definition

It can be difficult to judge the influence of our actions on our environment and to properly differentiate between what results from our actions and what happens by chance [1]. The illusion of control consists in overestimating the influence of our actions on events that are in fact driven wholly or mostly by chance [2]. Some nuances exist in the descriptions from different sources, but in general this can be described as the expectation that one will succeed more often than is likely in reality [1]. Poor judgment as to the cause of an event, called an illusion of causality, involves placing more importance on one's own behaviour than on external factors such as chance [2]. The illusion of control is a specific form of the illusion of causality.

Example

The illusion of control appears especially when we have the ability to act, even if this ability cannot affect the chain of events [1]. This is the case when supporters believe they can positively influence the outcome of a televised sporting event by cheering on the team from their living room [3]. Watching the game on TV will not change the events of the game in any way, as players cannot hear their cheers or even know how many people are watching remotely. Still, some fans feel as though they are contributing to the game and making an impact. The illusion of control also arises when a person believes that their choice of a particular slot machine at the casino will work in their favor, when winning is in reality purely a matter of chance.

Explanation

Individual characteristics can influence the illusion of control. The need to maintain and boost self-esteem can cause a person to judge that their control is greater than it is. Thus, the greater the importance given to the situation and the greater the personal involvement in it, the more one’s self-esteem can be at stake, increasing the tendency to have an illusion of control. [2]. The motivation to achieve a result also promotes the appearance of the illusion of control [1].


Context can also favor the emergence of the illusion of control. Having the opportunity to act in a given situation can cause us to overestimate our potential for actual control, whether our action actually influences the situation or not. Getting the desired results repeatedly and early in a specific situation, as well as getting a reward following an action, are other elements that foster the illusion of control. In addition, a high degree of comfort in a situation, for example through practice and repetition, can make it more difficult to distinguish between the effects of chance and the effects of one’s actions [1].

Consequences

Several effects, both positive and negative, are observed in connection with the illusion of control. It appears to be associated with good mental health in several ways. Indeed, this illusion helps protect us from the negative effects of perceiving the random nature of many events, and can improve self-esteem. People with depression exhibit less illusion of control [2], while those susceptible to this bias can exhibit unrealistic optimism that may serve as protection for their mental health [4]. However, if one takes credit for successful outcomes that result from chance, one could lack objectivity [2] and overestimate one’s talent. Furthermore, superstitions can arise with this bias, since believing that we have control can lead us to erroneously postulate causal links between our actions and results [4]. People who have a problem with gambling frequently have irrational thoughts about being able to control the outcome of their bets through certain actions. Therefore, the illusion of control is potentially a factor that encourages these problematic behaviours [3].

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Think about or investigate the real probabilities of an event, taking into account any elements that can influence an outcome (especially those that come from others or from the situation itself).

  • Verify the likelihood of something happening when one does nothing. This may show that one’s actions were not having as much effect as was thought.

  • One should not try to eliminate this illusion altogether, since it still seems to have some mental health benefits.

How is this bias measured?

Usually, participants are asked to take part in a task in which their level of control is low (e.g. pressing buttons that have little or no impact on the outcome). The illusion of control is then analyzed using direct measures, such as asking participants to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 their feeling of control over the task, or indirect, for example by deducing the feeling of control of participants based on their behaviour. These measures are compared to the actual level of control of the participants; the more participants' perception of control exceeds the level of actual control, the greater the illusion of control [1].

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

This bias has social or individual repercussions:

This bias is empirically demonstrated:

References

[1] Stefan, Simona & David Daniel (2013). Recent developments in the experimental investigation of the illusion of control. A meta-analytic review. Journal of applied social psychology, 43, 377-386. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01007.x (Meta-analysis)


[2] Yarritu, Ion, Helena Matute & Miguel A. Vadillo (2014). Illusion of control: The role of personal involvement. Experimental psychology, 61, 38-47. https://doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000225


[3] Orgaz, Critina, Ana Estévez & Helena Matute (2013). Pathological gamblers are more vulnerable to the illusion of control in a standard associative learning task. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00306


[4] Rudski, Jeffrey (2001). Competition, Superstition and the Illusion of Control. Current psychology: developmental, 20(1), 68-84.

Tags

Individual level, Need for self-esteem, Need for security

Related biases

Author

Éliane Simard Desjardins, undergraduate student in psychology at the Université de Montréal. 

Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.

How to cite this entry

Simard Desjardins, E. (2020). Illusion of control, trans. S. D. Renaud. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 2. Online: www.shortcogs.com

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